UTEP's season is in a tailspin, after an opening win over New Mexico State, the Miners have lost four straight, two in conference. Sean Kugler's squad has run through three quarterbacks and in spite of brief moments of efficiency, that position is still a hugely inconsistent. In the four losses UTEP has been outscored 169-35. Only once have they scored more than seven points during that period. Did we mention it's been bad? It's arguable that a 34 point loss to Texas is the Miners second best 2016 performance.
On Saturday the Miners welcome in an FIU team that could be further into a tailspin, if that's possible. Two weeks ago the Panthers relieved Ron Turner of his coaching duties and promoted DC Ron Cooper to the head of the firing line. Cooper's been a head coach before, at Eastern Michigan, Louisville, and Alabama A&M. He has a combined 46-55 record when calling the shots. The Panthers are suffering from the Curse of Cristobal. Cristobal of course being Mario Cristobal, who built the Panthers into a respectable unit. FIU won the Sun Belt and went to two straight bowl games during his tenure, when they regressed a year later he was canned. Enter Ron Turner, the former Illinois, who won ten games in just over three years in Miami.
But hey, at least FIU is coming off a win in their last outing against Greater Miami rival Florida Atlantic. So now FIU head to El Paso with each teams season very much on balance. Looking at UTEP's schedule if they can get on track Saturday the Miners could go on a run.
The Miners' had the fortune or misfortune of playing the two Western Division favorites early in Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech. Now they get a string of winnable games against conference opponents.
UTEP's not-so-secret weapon continues to be the venerable Aaron Jones, who in spite of playing against run boxes has been ultra productive and our choice for bounce back players of the year. He's doing everything he can, including fighting through injury, again. He needs some help from a passing game that doesn't push the top of opposing defenses.
Ryan Metz seemed to be at least the beginning of the answer against Louisiana Tech, but he's held out this week due to concussion related symptoms. So re-enter Zack Greenlee, Greenlee of the nice start vs. New Mexico State, followed by the injury that held him out at Texas, followed by two ineffective starts against Army and USM. That Zack Greenlee.
So can UTEP get enough offensively to beat FIU? The Panthers are averaging a whopping 19 points a game, nothing to sneeze at if your UTEP and averaging 15 points an outing. Can UTEP use FIU to springboard them to a second bowl game in Kugler's four years? That will depend on a few very key things. Let's call them key factors...
1. Stay ahead of the chains. The kiss of death for UTEP has been their inability to avoid drive killing penalties and mistakes that put them in 3rd and more than seven. UTEP isn't equipped to convert those to any large degree. UTEP flipped some units on its offensive line this week including moving center Derron Gatewood to guard and inserting Tanner Stallings in at center. We tend to get nervous when a new center moves in, so we'll see how that effects things.
2. Convert trips into FIU territory into points. Last week UTEP was king of the realm between the 30's and unable to find pay dirt. Five Miner drives crossed to or over La Tech's thirty, the results: an interception, first half expiration, a touchdown, turnover on downs, and a fumble. Against USM four UTEP series ended inside the USM 30, the results: a touchdown, a pick, and two turnovers on downs. Score when given the opportunity, it helps everyone.
3. Stop the run. FIU has a similar problem offensively as UTEP, Panther quarterbacks have struggled to threaten opposing offenses, but if FIU can run, they will. They showed a renewed commitment to the run last week against FAU. If they do run, it'll be Alex Gardner doing it. Gardner has run for 84 yards a game, hitting triple digits three times. He's averaging almost five yards a carry. Force FIU's quarterback Alex McGough, a 52% passer with 6 picks and 2 TDs beat you.